As 2020 has shown us, no one can predict the future – but you can pick a destination. In the world of manufacturing, that destination is the factory of the future, which will be fueled by growing technologies such as 3D printing. Yet, while the factory of the future is within sight, the way there is still being paved. By Richard Elving, Director at Markforged.

In realising the factory of the future, 3D printing will be a critical driver – but before we get there, the technology will need to be fully implemented, leveraged and optimised on a more widespread basis. Read on for a roadmap of where 3D printing is headed and how it will impact the industry in 2021.

Stop 1: 3D printing will help organisations take control of supply chains

As the manufacturing industry begins to recover from the pandemic and the landscape grows more competitive, it’s critical that organisations speed up their iteration cycles and provide new, innovative solutions quickly in 2021. To achieve this efficiency, organisations must use 3D printing to optimise processes, minimise downtime and circumvent circuitous supply chains.

In today’s global landscape, the longer the supply chain is, and the more players involved, the more risk an organisation faces when developing a new product – a process that often requires a distributed network of suppliers who produce the necessary parts for product development. When manufacturers are reliant on suppliers or partners in a crisis, it’s nearly impossible to be agile and as disruptions from the pandemic have shown us, even just weeks of supply chain delays can completely disrupt a business.

Organisations that have access to a 3D printer can look at existing machines, identify which widget they need to update – for example, a new robotic hand for a larger product – and design it in-house. Then they can print a prototype and test it themselves. This cuts out waiting for a supplier or supply chain partner, which would have added several iteration cycles. Instead, organisations can develop new solutions faster – reducing downtime from weeks to days – and be the first to market.

What’s more, by printing on site and reshoring their operations, organisations can test prototypes one at a time, rather than ordering several from a supplier or partner in bulk. As the organisation makes small adjustments to the part, such as the robotic hand’s grip, it only needs to throw away one hand rather than many; helping to reduce waste.

Stop 2: A 3D printing-first mindset will become the industry standard

As manufacturers continue to realise the value of 3D printing, adoption rates will increase and 3D printing will be further solidified as a staple, resulting in two trends. First, younger engineers will be exposed to additive manufacturing early on at school and, consequently, enter the workforce expecting 3D printing to be available at their companies. These digital natives will arrive with a 3D printing-first mindset – ushering in a new way of thinking, designing and manufacturing that will fuel explosive innovation. In turn, manufacturers will be expected to bring 3D printing as close to the point of use as possible, so 3D printing-first engineers can design on site – standardising the use of additive manufacturing.

Stop 3: An increased focus on certified 3D parts

Manufacturers know there is a high bar to clear to get parts certified. The more critical the part, the more stringent the safety and quality standards – which can become steeper depending on which industry you work in. Most manufacturers today rely on traditional methods of machining parts because they know it can meet those high standards. However, this dependence is holding manufacturers back from adopting more innovative solutions such as additive manufacturing, which – once certified – would benefit the bottom line in many more ways.

As 3D printing technology matures, however, traditional machining will no longer be the golden child of certification programs. 3D printed parts are already being used more prevalently and diversely, making them more likely to pass strict safety standards. Companies should not wait to prioritise certification for additive manufacturing – the first to prove their parts are safe will earn security in the end-use parts market.

Stop 4: One-off operations will make way for print farms and service bureaus

As more manufacturers prove the 3D printing use case within their organisation, the industry will begin to see more companies taking advantage of print farms and service bureaus. Bringing 3D printing in-house will revolutionise manufacturers’ processes and enable organisations to bring additive manufacturing to the point of use. As the realisation of this promise grows, however, manufacturers will have to keep pace with growing volume, and we’ll start to see manufacturers strategically outsourcing work to local service bureaus. Engineers can print and test a prototype on site, bring it to a print farm, and have it produced at scale, faster and at a fraction of the price.

Here, the vision of 3D printing farms will be actualised. While some exist today, companies are going to start taking advantage of this market opportunity with hundreds, even thousands, of 3D printers that they can use to quickly produce the parts they need most often. By the end of the decade, companies won’t have to outsource critical pieces of the manufacturing supply chain overseas. Instead, manufacturers will take matters into their own hands – until print farms grow into print factories.

As 3D printing accelerates, the factory of the future will become a closer, more fully realised destination. It will also become more essential as competitors race in the same direction. To get there first, or in time, manufacturers need to implement and leverage technologies such as additive manufacturing to optimise operations – cutting costs, lead times, downtime and waste.